Posted in Great Middle Grade Reads, Pitchwars, Teacher Resources, Writing

Mentor Wishlist for Pitchwars ’17!

OMGoodness, it’s Pitchwars time! Writers, welcome.  I am thrilled to be a PW ’17 mentor for MG, and I’m so glad you stopped by! Good luck to everyone. 😊

BIO:  I’m a teacher and writer in Southwestern PA. My teaching career has taken me from public secondary schools to small private settings, and I’ve taught most grade levels from 2nd to 12th along the way. My most recent teaching “gig” was Language Arts, 5th through 8th grades, at a small Catholic school.

I decided to be a pitchwarsmg2bimageteacher by the time I was a middle grader, but I knew I wanted to be a writer a lot earlier than that. Instead of earning my permanent teaching certification credits in some education-related field, I went rogue and earned a Master’s Degree in Writing Popular Fiction from Seton Hill University. I learned how to structure and produce book-length works in popular genres at Seton Hill, but my favorite part of the program was the revision work we did in email Peer Critique groups and small group in-person critique settings.

Several of my creative non-fiction essays, literary non-fiction, and craft articles got picked up for publication after grad school, but my book goals got a little sidetracked with teaching, directing high school and middle school theatre, and having kids. Pitchwars ’15 was my incentive to start trying again—I finished my WIP and submitted! Then several mentors requested my manuscript to read—what a thrill! Then I got in—instant terror!

200But my awesome mentor Rebecca Wells quickly made me remember what I loved so much about peer critiquing in grad school: that revision is happily addicting, and that improving your story one sentence at a time brings a fulfillment to the writer that few other working processes can achieve.

I had over a dozen agent requests in the week after entries went live, and I later found my agent, Alyssa Eisner Henkin at Trident Media, as a result of that agent-finding process.

So! Hopefully at least some part of my writing path resounds with yours. I think there are a lot of parallels between writing fiction and producing a piece of theatre for the stage (as there are counterparts between many artistic forms), but the biggest one is also my favorite advice: trust the process. Everyone’s process is different—doesn’t matter if it’s taken you a while to come this far! Be proud that you are here, and working toward what you want.

Come follow me on Twitter–  @JennBrisendine   and Instagram — JennBrisendineWrites .

WISH LIST—

–I’m seeking upper MG historicals with or without elements of magic; time periods during the Fall of Rome, Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and the Restoration would be of special interest.

–I’m also seeking upper contemporary or historical realistic MG that takes place in interesting geographical locations (islands? polar regions? deserts?) that play a strong role in the book. Ecological/Environmental elements would be great to see.

–Upper MG mystery built on strong characterization would be great.

–Upper MG set in small or alternative school settings or having to do with theater would be good too.

–I love good use of literary techniques in the writing— sincere and organic prose that zings.

–I like interesting POV mixes and teachable books.

200wHere are some reads I’ve enjoyed lately and what I liked about them.

Counting by Sevens by Holly Goldberg Sloan – mix of 1st and 3rd POV, present and past tense works really well here.

Ninth Ward by Jewell Parker Rhodes – more recent historical event combined with elements of magic for the win.

Olive’s Ocean by Kevin Henkes – interior monologue is well done and imagery sticks with you.

Breaking Stalin’s Nose by Eugene Yelchin – Voice and emotional “grippiness” here are standouts; interesting and original historical setting.

The War that Saved my Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley – kind of an unrelenting realism here that makes you keep reading.

My favorite writers include Rebecca Stead, Lemony Snickett, and Christopher Paul Curtis.

My favorites to teach include Bud, Not Buddy; Number the Stars; Maniac Magee; Holes; Fever 1793; Ninth Ward; and The Westing Game.

I’m probably NOT the best MG mentor for:

–high fantasy;

–animal stories;

–younger MG stories;

–sports stories;

–fairy tale or legend/folktale retellings;

–bathroom or lunch table humor.

Okay! So… good luck, and don’t stress about prepping your submission! Remember, it’s a process…and time and hard work will help you arrive.

If you get lost along the way, the Pitchwars site can offer guidance.

http://wp.me/p3YLhv-7Yc

And don’t forget to stop by #Pitchwars on Twitter.

Can’t wait to see what I get in the inbox…and thank you for considering me as a potential mentor for your MG work for PW ’17.

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Posted in Pitchwars, Uncategorized, Writing

Time for Pitchwars! Or, Eeeek…Time for Pitchwars??

Flashback to PW’15: hitting the submit button was a thrill—I’d worked up the nerve to send my work to some very talented and successful mentor-writers. But it was also a huge relief—it had been an entry months in the making. My writing To-Do list self-destructed in a single click…and what an awesome feeling that was! Nothing left to do with the ms for the moment—done!

Mid-August, with the sub window about to close, I turned to prepping my classroom and attending in-services. The flood was imminent—grading and planning, researching and teaching, meetings and emails. Over and over I thought, Good thing I had the summer to finish my entry for Pitchwars. And I just wouldn’t have had the time in the school year. And Working more on the book will have to wait.

Then I got picked as a mentee, and I had to make time to keep going.

For anyone considering entering Pitchwars (or other contests), but worried about the deadlines and the time commitment, or anyone just struggling to fit in a few hours of writing in the week—I hear you. The frustration is real.

Time is a funngiphyy thing, though—you can never seem to have enough, but it is somewhat manipulable. Kind of like Hermione with her Time Turner, you can overrule the constraints that time puts on you.

One of the biggest lessons I learned during PW was that I managed significant revisions and rewritings despite being real-life busy. Pitchwars was motivating, and my mentor gave me awesome ideas and encouragement, but the improved book came about from work that I did. You can make the time to move forward on your book goals.

These tricks for making time are not new. You know them. You’ve done them. They work with varying degrees of success depending on your habits, day job, family, and personality. So maybe consider this list a self-check, or a calming take-a-breath moment to review some ways in which you can take control of the clock.

  1. Can you limit your screen time more? Cut down on FB and Twitter unless it’s book-related correspondence, until you reach a word or page goal. Try sticking to only a few hours a week or less of TV. Or use a streaming service to catch up after you meet a goal.

2. Can you be more efficient with your reading choices? Don’t give up reading altogether! But reading a new police thriller when you’re writing younger historical MG may not be the most time-saving choice. Read at bedtime if that suits you, and sleep well knowing you fit in a craft chapter, a bit of research, or a comp title into your day at the eleventh hour.

3. Can you wake up earlier (or go to sleep later)? Even a half-hour a day of added writing time can get you pages ahead by the end of the week.

4. What can you carve and whittle off the clock? Can you write on your commute? In the car-rider pick-up lane at your kids’ school? In the waiting room at appointments? Look at your day-to-day schedule and pry open some windows of opportunity. Take notes on your phone, bring along a reference book for research, or own the archaic with a red pen and a chapter print-out.

5. Leave work at work (said no classroom teacher ever, lol). Well, okay…to the extent possible. Try to get as much of your day job done at the office or the school or the business, to allow more writing hours evenings and weekends. When can you sneak in some extra time for work at work? Though I missed my colleagues at lunchtime the year I was a mentee, I used that 25 minutes every day to grade, copy, and plan. I’d try to stay a bit after hours, too, if it meant I could go home mostly unencumbered and have more minutes for revisions once the kids were in bed.

6. Give yourself a break. Don’t go for mom/dad of the year or employee of the month, right now. You’re trying to write/revise/publish a BOOK. That’s enough—because you will instruct, inspire, and entertain through those words. Your book may save someone in some way you may never even know about. You are already doing a valiant, noble, and very cool thing. So if it’s mac and cheese for the third time this week, so what? It’s just food. The living room’s a mess? More important things. You skipped a volunteer activity? Catch up next month. Many, many people say they should write a book. Many of them start trying to write one. But you and I and a small (by comparison) community of other writers are actually following those words up with the continued, forward-moving action that could lead to fulfillment and success.

One time as a mentee during PW revisions I tweeted the mac and cheese thing, out of wry guilt. Several awesome fellow writers sent links to quick meal ideas and make-ahead recipes. You’ll hear it over and over—writers comprise a highly supportive community. If you stress and struggle with time, you are not alone! Trust yourself that you too can become a skilled time-turner, and keep moving forward.

Can’t wait to mentor this year…don’t worry, future prospective mentee. We’ll both make the time.

Posted in How-to Guides, Writing

By the Book, Chapter Five: Many Genres, One Craft (edited by Michael A. Arnzen and Heidi Ruby Miller)

This summer marks the four-year anniversary of the release of Many Genres, One Craft, and I’m still thrilled to call myself a contributor. My essay on writing for older kids, “Keeping It Real: Mixing Truth and Fiction in YA,” is included, but it’s only one of 82 pieces–82!–that explore the craft of writing by addressing it from multiple angles. I can’t find another writing book out there anything like this one, and it’s fun and exciting to be a part of a volume so innovative. Beautifully designed and published by Headline Books, MGOC offers up both the practical and the inspirational in each packed section: Craft, Genre, and The Writer’s Life. Articles on the writing process and story elements fill the Craft section; popular genres like sci-fi, romance, suspense, and others (in addition to YA and children’s) are each addressed in turn in the Genre section; and the pieces in The Writer’s Life section, probably my favorites, clue you in to methods that working, earning writers use to overcome challenges and achieve the overall goal of more and better writing.

The book is crazy big and weighs as much as a newborn. It’s done awfully well this past year; it won the 2012 International Book Award in the “Business: Writing and Publishing” category, and the “Education/Academic” category of the 2012 Next Generation Indie Book Awards. It won the General Non-Fiction Award in the 2011 London Books Festival Awards. It placed 5th in The Writer magazine’s “This Year’s Ten Most Terrific Writing Books,” earned a spot as a finalist in an impressive list of other awards and honors, and–as of yesterday–won Silver in ForeWord Reviews’ 2012 Book of the Year Awards in the category of Adult Nonfiction–Writing.

MGOC‘s contributors are all connected with the MA/MFA writing program in Writing Popular Fiction at Seton Hill University as graduates, faculty, or guest presenters at writers’ residencies. We all draw from what we learned or what we teach at Seton Hill in these essays, so the book also provides a pure glimpse into what this degree program has to offer. As Dr. Mike Arnzen, one of the editors, says in his intro, “this book is the writer’s residency in a bottle.”

Try  MGOC’s blog  for excerpts and more info.

Posted in How-to Guides, Writing

By the Book, Chapter Four: The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers

Back in college and grad school days, I knew several chemistry majors who, when they got a few weeks inside Organic Chem, suddenly felt like they were hopelessly sinking. You could read their worried expressions like pages in a story: I’m in the wrong major. I picked the worst career ever. I can’t do it, because I don’t get it. Same thing with the Pre-meds when Anatomy and Physiology hit them like a bus, and same thing again when Library Science wanna-bees opened their textbooks on MARC records. The content itself in these classes threatened to kick even the most determined and intelligent students the heck out of the discipline where they thought they’d always belonged. Many students were “weeded out” during these classes and other particularly challenging ones; the ones who made it through shivered with relief. And every now and then a student came out the other side the clear victor, making once-threatening ideas now serve their needs instead.

Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers has a similar effect on some storytellers. I watched it happen in grad school and I felt some of the panic myself: What? Huh? Who? Slow down. Maybe this writing thing isn’t for me after all. It’s not that the text is hard to read; it’s not at all, it’s easy reading. It’s clearly explained. It’s a friendly tone. The examples are all stories we know and love well. So what’s the problem?

Maybe it has something to do with the basic premise: that all stories–every book you’ve ever read–are all really the same story. (At least, the good ones.) And that not only are all stories basically the same, but that your life and my life and pretty much every life ever lived or being lived or going to be lived is the same story too.

Vogler’s book, pictured here, is a guide for writers. It’s a spin on the work of Joseph Campbell, myth theorist extraordinaire. Joseph Campbell’s ideas “run parallel” (Vogler’s phrase) to those of Carl Jung, a Swiss psychologist who discussed the role of archetypes in our real lives. Joseph Campbell wrote a book called The Hero with a Thousand Faces in which he analyzed both the archetypes themselves and the archetype-besprinkled path we all follow through life. (Stay with me.) And Vogler used Campbell’s ideas in his days as a writer and consultant for the movie-making industry, ultimately writing about this Hero’s Journey mythic structure in a seven-page how-to-use-it-well memo. He calls The Writer’s Journey a “descendant” of that memo, and describes how writers of stories can use Campbell’s ideas not only in their pages of fiction or their screenplays but also in their real lives as writers.

So what are these archetypes? And what Journey does every Hero supposedly go on? Here goes (and if you’ve never heard of this before, don’t worry. Vogler’s message is that even if you’ve never read Jung or Campbell, you already know this stuff. Because you are already living it.):

A Hero (main character/protagonist/person living a life) starts out in the Ordinary World. He hears the Call to Adventure but initially might hesitate (Refusal of the Call). He Meets with the Mentor (an archetype) and decides to heed the call. Next comes the Crossing of the First Threshold; what follows are Tests, Allies, and Enemies; eventually he Approaches the Inmost Cave in which there is a final Ordeal. The Hero gets some Reward, takes The Road Back, experiences Resurrection, and Returns with the Elixir. Other archetypes the Hero encounters along his path include Shapeshifters, Threshold Guardians, Tricksters, and Shadows. (All the capitalized phrases here are Vogler’s or Campbell’s labels.)

Some students love literary analysis so much in high school that they become high school English teachers. As a teacher, when I read Vogler’s book, my reaction was “Well, yeah. Plot Triangle Diagram 101.” But as a would-be writer, this book blew me away, and lots of other writers in my fiction program too, and caused us to question the choice to devote a good portion of the rest of our lives to being writers. It’s overwhelming to think that every story–including the ones you haven’t even dreamed up yet!–are going to fall into this iconic, mythic structure that also parallels each and every life ever lived. Whew.

Then, there were those who debated and I’m sure still debate the merits of Vogler’s ideas, saying it’s just a lengthy description of a formula, and why should anyone settle for thinking about plotline via formulaic means. I’m anti-formula too–unless it’s more of a map to the whole meaning and purpose of the quest that is life, which Vogler suggests the Hero’s Journey is.

Chapters are devoted to each archetype and to each stage of the Journey, complete with many  examples from great movies and books. By the time you’re done reading, you’ll never again watch so much as an episode of Blue’s Clues in the same way. And you might find yourself analyzing the journey you are on, thinking, “Oh, yeah, that ex-boyfriend. Definitely a shapeshifter.” Et cetera.

It’s a great read. It’ll get your wheels turning down paths you may never have considered. But if you’re a fiction writer, it’s a little…daunting. Fascinating, but daunting. A writer may have to figure out how to best tame these ideas for his or her own use.

Posted in How-to Guides, Writing

By the Book, Chapter Three: A Profile of Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Browne and King

Every time I pick up Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Yourself into Print by Renni Browne and Dave King, it’s like drinking a hot tea with honey when you have a scratchy throat. Soothing and helpful. There’s no snarkiness here, just wisdom and common sense advice told in a clear and friendly tone. There are even little cartoons by George Booth to keep you smiling as you slash and burn pieces of your manuscript.

My copy is literally yellow with age and use. Assigned reading in the early semesters of my fiction writing program ten years ago, this one stays within reach on my desk, with  dogeared and paper-clipped sections for quick reference. Loaded with examples, the authors never talk down to the writer or say anything discouraging, and they keep quiet on the slim chances we all have of fiction publication. Consequently, the soothing part is just being allowed to go in to your work and revise the heck out of it, based on their recommendations. There’s a tighter focus on what to do and how to do it because they leave reality checks and opinions to the Noah Lukemans of writing guides and inspiring words and tones to the Anne Lamotts. Just last night, flipping through the guide for some tidbits to mention in this post, I reviewed the chapter “Easy Beats” and realized I better edit (again) the dialogue in the second half of my novel to get rid of the extraneous beats. I’m forever having characters sigh or nod their heads or take off or put on their glasses, because I don’t want them just standing there awkwardly; but Self-Editing says no, let the dialogue “crackle” with its own tension, keep the beats to a minimum, don’t slow the pace too much. And I trust this book, so it’s back I go with the delete key at the ready.

Oh, and if you don’t know the term “beat,” don’t even worry. Not only do the authors explain every term at the beginnings of chapters, they do it in such a painless way that you never feel amateurish or inexperienced. Beats are the physical activities character pursue as they talk and move in a scene, you read. Ohhh, yeah, your writer head thinks. I have those. And if you have too many, like me, you read the rest of the chapter for pointers on making beats more worth their while, and then you go revise.

Other chapters detail breaking up dialogue and interior monologue for better pacing, editing out repetition, resisting the urge to explain every little thing, and one of my favorites, making your writing more sophisticated. This has to do with eliminating the overuse of exclamation marks, italics for emphasis, and -ly adverbs, as well as keeping a tight leash on metaphors when the action or reveals need to take center stage (ooh, I need to be reminded of that last one a lot). The authors are flat out solving the mystery here on how to have a writing style, because once you rise to a higher level of sophistication in your writing, your voice can start to show. Voice is  an elusive enough thing for writers. Thank goodness Self-Editing can help you clear away the obstructions in your voice’s path, and allow you a chance of honing it.

One more note on the soothing effect of this guide: it’s one of the few I’ve seen that offers actual suggested answers to the end-of-chapter writing exercises. What a great way to douse any Inexperienced Writer Panic. Sip this book, and get back to work.

Posted in How-to Guides, Writing

By the Book, Chapter Two: A Profile of Noah Lukeman’s The First Five Pages

So here’s a writer’s guide that is not for the faint of heart (though of course writing itself and certainly attempting to get published are not for the faint of heart either): The First Five Pages: A Writer’s Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile by Noah Lukeman. Unlike Anne Lamont, whose tone is funny if a little ironic and, at times, heartwrenching, this guy is like the astronomy professor in your 8 a.m. class for the science credit you and a bunch of other liberal arts majors had to get. He’s no fun. No matter how much you wanted to romanticize astronomy or referred to your lifelong fascination with it or tried to label it a fun subject, that professor would start in with his rate of declination equations and his calculable ascension angles and you’d just swim in how much not fun it was. This guy is like that guy. No matter how enthusiastically you tear into these pages or how nobly you remind yourself that you will forever hold tightly to your dream–nay, your quest for publication, Mr. Lukeman will take all the fun out of your pursuit. He’s the Debbie Downer of writer’s guides.

Here’s the thing, though: I’d rather be left downtrodden and slightly mopish about my chances in the slush pile if it means I’ve gleaned some truth about the process, and I think the book gives valid and honest advice. You won’t get anywhere reading about the glory of writing for writing’s sake or how good it feels to tweak a tale just perfectly to your liking and damn all the rejectionists out there because you have a story in which you invested your heart and soul. There are those types of writer’s guides out there, but I won’t be profiling them here. No, I’ll stick with Mr. Lukeman and his oh-so-subtle arrogance, because he says what those inspirational “guides” won’t — that you shouldn’t write commonplace conversation in dialogue because it marks you as an amateur. That one too many adverbs or adjectives in the first couple paragraphs will get you form rejected. That the sole objective of an agent or editor upon beginning to read your query or pages is to find some grounds upon which to say, “Nope, not this one.” But here’s the thing; if you follow the advice in The First Five Pages, you stand a far better chance than the typical querier.

Written in 2000, the book is a bit dated in its first two chapters on presentation–the discussion here refers mostly to the way your writing appears on paper, and he never gets into e-querying because that tsunami hadn’t quite yet hit the writing community. But the rest of the chapters present hard-core how-to advice and patiently reiterate the major flaws you as your work’s primary editor must hunt down and kill. If you don’t get the gist of each chapter in the text, he follows his topics with end-of-chapters examples and exercises that make what not to do blindingly clear–indeed, his examples are practically caricatures of  bad writing. From the way he belabors show-don’t-tell, good dialogue tags, and avoiding info-dumping, I think Mr. Lukeman makes well known the auto-reject standards he upholds. From his tone, he has taught writers these same pointers over and over since he was a wee babe of an agent and editor. Reading it, you can almost hear his long-suffering sigh.

Posted in How-to Guides, Writing

By the Book, Chapter One: A Profile of Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird

Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life is probably my favorite book on writing, and I’ve read a pile of them.  Lamott has a take-no-prisoners, hyper-realistic attitude on writing, so this book is not for  the faint of heart; it oozes with proof that A) writing hurts and B) we, as writers, have to  suffer a bit to arrive at anything artful on the page. This isn’t a new theme in discourse on the craft, but Lamott’s insights are fresh, practical, and graphic. Writing, she’ll have you know, is “about as easy and pleasurable as bathing a cat.” Pitching your book idea at a conference can feel like “you put your head in the lion’s mouth.”  She describes the long, long hours you might sit at the computer without ever typing one good sentence, and the long, long pages you might compose to mine just one idea that has potential for revision. She suggests having a go-to pal who will read your draft and really critique it to pieces, comparing this reader to a man she used to know who would take friends’ animals to be put down when they just couldn’t do it themselves.

But along with the pain and suffering of writers, another theme rises up in Bird by Bird: that writers are not helpless or hapless, and that we can tame writing into a corner… by beating it back with a stick, if we have to. The title is an immediate example; Lamott recalls her father’s advice to her brother when he once began writing a lengthy research paper on birds: “Just take it bird by bird.”  Her advice has given me the edge over proverbial writer’s block many times: start with just one tiny thing, just whatever of your scene or character that you can see through a one-inch viewfinder. Start with that, and describe it. And know that the first draft can be bad. Really bad. No one will ever see it but you; let it be bad, who cares? The real writing happens bit by bit, draft by draft. Bird by bird.

Is this stark voice with zero tolerance for sugar-coating disconcerting or uncomfortable? Not in the least. I’m appreciative, more so each time I revisit her words, to have someone tell it to me straight, as if I’m having coffee with a friend whose advice I trust inherently, even when it hurts. I am grateful for the consistent lack of fluff. The ultimate consequence is that when Lamott hits you with pure inspiration, she hits you hard; on noticing details, for example, she says, “There is ecstasy in paying attention.” And you know what? There really is.